Bat­tle brews at GOP meet­ing

As state con­ven­tion be­gins, Repub­li­cans dis­agree on iden­tity

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeremy Wallace

SAN AN­TO­NIO — Repub­li­cans are con­jur­ing the specters of Darth Vader and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War traitor Bene­dict Arnold in prepa­ra­tion for their statewide con­ven­tion in San An­to­nio, re­veal­ing why many party mem­bers see the next three days as an­other piv­otal chap­ter in the civil war within the party.

Repub­li­cans dom­i­nate state pol­i­tics, hold an iron grip on every statewide elected office and have com­plete con­trol of the Texas Leg­is­la­ture, which has pro­duced some of the most con­ser­va­tive laws in the na­tion. Yet, the party is far from at peace with it­self.

On one side are Repub­li­cans who worry the party is spend­ing too much time on party pu­rity tests and wast­ing en­ergy go­ing after fel­low Texas Repub­li­cans in­stead of train­ing their fire on the true en­emy: the Democrats.

“We’ve got to the point where there is so much vit­ri­olic brother against brother in the same party,” said Cindy Asche, who is run­ning to be­come the chair of the Repub­li­can Party of Texas, a race that will be de­cided dur­ing the con­ven­tion.

Asche said with state’s di­ver­sity grow­ing, Repub­li­can dis­unity risks send­ing po­ten­tial GOP mem­bers to­ward the Demo­cratic party.

On the other side are tea party-rooted ac­tivists, who say the party is still filled with

too many Repub­li­can elected of­fi­cials who do not ad­here enough to the party’s plat­form by block­ing leg­is­la­tion, like the so-called bath­room bill, that the ac­tivists say they want.

That wing be­lieves they have had some big vic­to­ries, such as pub­licly cen­sur­ing Texas House Speaker Joe Straus — a life­long Repub­li­can from San An­to­nio. Party ac­tivists ac­cused Straus of block­ing the party’s pri­or­i­ties when only half of Ab­bott’s pri­or­ity bills made it through the House, par­tic­u­larly a law re­quir­ing peo­ple to use the bath­room for the gen­der listed on their birth cer­tifi­cate.

Con­ser­va­tives are con­vinced the more mod­er­ate wing is plan­ning a coun­ter­at­tack this week to take out their abil­ity to cen­sure more Repub­li­can of­fi­cials who run cross­wise with them.

“This is one of the last chances for the empire to strike back,” said Dale Huls, a tea party Repub­li­can from Clear Lake, re­fer­ring to the so-called es­tab­lish­ment wing that he says is fight­ing grass-roots ac­tivists to con­trol the party rules. “We blew up the Death Star, and Joe Straus is gone.”

Huls said if his side loses, the voice of the grass roots could be “sti­fled,” like it once was be­fore.

‘Bene­dict Dickey’

The party chair’s race shows the di­vi­sions. Op­po­nents of the cur­rent Repub­li­can Party of Texas lead­er­ship are fir­ing back. A group calling it­self Texas Con­ser­va­tives For Lib­erty And Free­dom is us­ing Face­book to ac­cuse the cur­rent party chair, James Dickey, of adding to the party di­vi­sions and be­ing dis­loyal to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump — some­thing Dickey de­nies.

To make the point, con­ser­va­tives call the chair­man “Bene­dict Dickey,” a ref­er­ence to Bene­dict Arnold, the ma­jor gen­eral in the Con­ti­nen­tal Army who de­fected to the British in 1780.

The fight comes on the heels of a Repub­li­can pri­mary sea­son in which fac­tions within the GOP have been bat­tling around the state.

Look no fur­ther than west Hous­ton, where Gov. Greg Ab­bott broke from party tra­di­tion and ac­tively cam­paigned to un­seat state Rep. Sarah Davis, a fel­low Repub­li­can. She has pub­licly said she agrees with Ab­bott on most is­sues, but Ab­bott con­sid­ered her not con­ser­va­tive enough.

Ab­bott also tar­geted state Rep. Lyle Lar­son, a San An­to­nio Repub­li­can. But in both cases, Ab­bott’s money, cam­paign ads and sup­port were not enough, and both in­cum­bents won.

On the other side, the As­so­ci­ated Repub­li­cans of Texas joined the bat­tle more ag­gres­sively than they have in the past to de­fend “pro-busi­ness, con­ser­va­tive can­di­dates” like Repub­li­can Steve Al­li­son. He beat back a chal­lenge from Matt Beebe to win the GOP nom­i­na­tion to re­place Straus.

Straus also fought back, pour­ing $1 mil­lion into pri­mary cam­paigns.

Changes to cen­sure rule

The civil war within the Repub­li­can Party is real, said Bran­don Rot­ting­haus, a Univer­sity of Hous­ton political sci­ence pro­fes­sor.

“And it will con­tinue un­til one wing gets large enough they can purge the other,” he added.

Rot­ting­haus said Democrats went through a sim­i­lar strug­gle over 30 years when fac­tions bat­tled from the 1940s un­til the 1970s.

He said even­tu­ally more con­ser­va­tive Democrats leaked out of the party and joined the Repub­li­can Party as it as­cended in power.

That’s Asche’s worry. While cam­paign­ing for chair, she’s been sound­ing the alarm that the in­ter­nal fights have be­come too vit­ri­olic and ben­e­fit Democrats.

“If we fail to unite, we are doomed,” Asche said.

Dickey, the chair since 2017, has ar­gued that ef­forts to unite the party are al­ready un­der­way with his lead­er­ship.

Be­yond the vote for chair, party lead­ers will be de­bat­ing party rules that are just as much a part of the bat­tle. Asche and others have ar­gued the party’s plat­form, which is 26 pages long with more than 260 items, is too long and adding to the party’s civil war.

Specif­i­cally, there is an ef­fort to end Rule 44, which al­lows Repub­li­cans to cen­sure other Repub­li­cans for tak­ing three or more ac­tions in “op­po­si­tion to the core prin­ci­ples of the Repub­li­can Party of Texas.”

Straus’s cen­sure has been a flash­point. Even after Straus an­nounced he was not seek­ing an­other term in office, ef­forts to cen­sure him con­tin­ued. Asche said there was no ben­e­fit to cen­sur­ing Straus when he was al­ready leav­ing, and she holds Dickey re­spon­si­ble.

Dickey said that after the vote in Jan­uary, it was a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to make, but one that ben­e­fited of the party.

“This is us be­ing com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing the con­ven­tion, the del­e­gates, Repub­li­can vot­ers across Texas in uni­fy­ing our party to move for­ward,” he said after the vote in Jan­uary.

Wrong mes­sage?

Huls said the cen­sure vote was im­por­tant be­cause it sent a mes­sage to other elected of­fi­cials that they will be held ac­count­able.

“We in the grass roots wanted to go out and send a mes­sage,” Huls said.

But it could be the wrong mes­sage for some.

“The mes­sage it sent across the state is that if you’re not our kind of Repub­li­can, you don’t have a place in this party,” Asche said.

Be­yond pick­ing a new chair and set­ting party rules, the three-day con­ven­tion also gives Repub­li­cans in office a plat­form to ad­dress the most ded­i­cated GOP ac­tivists.

Ab­bott and Sens Ted Cruz and John Cornyn are among more than a dozen speak­ers ex­pected to ad­dress the con­ven­tion.

Robin Jer­stad

Brent Clinger­man, of Hous­ton, pre­pares the Texas Right to Life booth at the Henry B. Gon­za­lez Con­ven­tion Cen­ter as the state Repub­li­can Con­ven­tion gets un­der­way in San An­to­nio.

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